No intervention, no interest

The British Parliament’s rejection of plans for military intervention in Syria reflects unwillingness amongst Britons to think beyond national borders.

The U.S. president, Barack Obama, has spent the last two weeks trying to coordinate a coalition of the willing to lend military support to his planned military strike on Syria. By using chemical weapons, the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, has not only violated international law, but found an ever more grotesque way to augment the suffering of the Syrian people. Resolving the wider civil war and humanitarian crisis remains a critical challenge for policy-makers around the world.

Words of admonition in response to these events abound throughout the international community. It has been to France, however, where the French President, Francoise Hollande, promised to match verbal condemnation with punitive action, that the Obama administration offered its warmest praise. Hence, John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, needed little prompting to restore diplomatic dialogue characterizing France as America’s oldest ally. For Mr. Cameron, such talk of America’s ‘even more special’ relationship is a bitter pill to swallow. The House of Commons’ decision vote against British military intervention against the Assad regime has compelled the British prime minister to temper the idea of himself as a global policeman, an idea that he has been criticized for indulging prematurely early last week.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cameron, the G20 summit, held last weekin St Petersburg, Russia, will only entrench perceptions of Britain as a big talker, but a small actor in world politics. Notably, even as the prime minister has continued to press Mr. Obama to pursue U.S. strikes against the Syrian regime, recent reports suggest that there were no bilateral meetings between the two leaders at the summit. In addition, U.S. officials will no longer be sharing their Syrian intelligence with their British counterparts.

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, has argued that British absence from any future military plans to punish Mr. Assad must not lead to a longer-lasting period of British retreat from international affairs. In an interview on Wednesday with the London Evening Standard, Mr. Hague said, “Britain is most comfortable with itself when we are saving lives, standing up for human rights overseas…. We are clear about our values. We must not retreat”. And yet, ‘retreat’ accurately describes several of the government’s decisions in the run-up to the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons.

Whilst Parliament’s rejection of British military intervention comes as a surprise to many, not least to Mr. Cameron himself, in others respects, it marks a logical step in wider drives by the government and its opposition to carry British society towards greater isolation. Hence, the prime minister’s decision at the beginning of the year to promise a 2017 vote on Britain’s EU membership mobilised populist Eurosecpticism, whilst lending currency to the view that Britain does not need formal alliances with neighbouring states. Such action was also intended to silence UKIP, a party that Mr. Cameron has previously ridiculed as inconsequential, but one whose rapid rise to prominence highlights key electoral interests that demand to be heard.

The public’s capacity for isolationism has also been enshrined by Conservative policies on immigration. As Mr. Cameron entered one sphere to champion Britain’s role in the ‘global race’, embodied in his jetting across the world to schmooze India with bilateral trade deals, in another his party made short-sighted interventions on immigration debates, tapping into a micro-Englandism not unlike that of their UKIP rivals. Hence, Home Secretary, Theresa May, passed legislation to limit the residency permits available to foreign workers and students, even as such groups improved their skills in British institutions and cultivated their talents in British universities.

Elsewhere, international uproar forced the government to reconsider Home Office plans to levy a £3,000 fine on individuals entering Britain from “high risk” countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh, and India. The Home Office’s most recent campaign, meanwhile, which involved sending vans around London’s ethnically diverse areas with slogans reading “Go Home or Face Arrest”, was even clumsier. It nonetheless gained tacit approval from the country’s parochial interest groups. These were perhaps the same groups who lamented political correctness gone mad when one UKIP leader referred collectively to countries that receive British aid as “Bongo Bongo Land”. Overall, for reasons of political point scoring rather than good leadership, all too often Mr. Cameron and his party have propped up the xenophobic and racist attitudes that continue to tarnish British society into the Twenty-First Century.

The Labour party has fared little better. Whilst the shadow immigration minister’s speech in August tacitly criticised both Tesco and Next for employing staff born overseas, the Labour leader himself, Ed Miliband, has failed to level a wider charge of entrenching cultural division against which the government has made itself increasingly vulnerable. Perhaps Mr. Miliband has failed to outlive the legacy of his predecessor, Gordon Brown, whose nationalist clamour of “British jobs for British workers” prioritised domestic workers to the detriment of sound capitalist principles.

In one sense, such thinly veiled hostility towards foreigners should be fully exploited by Britain’s political leaders. If the majority of Britons feel this way, it is only democratic that politicians reflect such views in their policies. From another perspective, however, both the government and their oppositions should be doing everything in their power to separate legitimate concerns of EU reform and immigration from the damaging sentiments of xenophobia and racism. Indeed, evidence from a recent Ipsos MORI poll that seventy percent of Britons identify immigration as a problem within British society, whilst only eighteen percent identify immigration as a problem in their local community, suggests that popular views on such questions are not always coherent. Such views therefore require challenging and qualification rather than cultivation and entrenchment. Notably, the richness of cultural intermingling in Great Britain speaks to an invaluable opportunity for leadership. It is an opportunity that politicians on all sides of the dispatch box have yet to embrace.

All of this provides a fitting context for current reluctance to intervene in Syria. In addition to skepticism following the Iraq war and the government’s mismanagement in planning the recent parliamentary vote, Britons’ reluctance towards helping foreigners stems from a view that such people can help themselves. This view runs contrary to the values of common humanity that has inspired the country towards heroic military victories in the past. It also fails to acknowledge that the greatest challenges facing Britain today are challenges facing other nations too. These include transnational terrorism, climate change, and nuclear weapons proliferation. Global interests must also be British interests, and whilst failure to intervene in Syria stems from a litany of complex factors, the attitudes of isolation and solipsism which have provided a basis for at least one of these factors must not be allowed to permeate any further into British society. As Britain is a nation of international communities and of international stature, it must also remain one of international outlook.

This need for Britain to be conscious of its place within a global system was exemplified in a small irony at the end of August. Despite his ongoing challenge to Britain’s role within the EU, Mr. Cameron nonetheless went straight to the European courts to protect the ‘national’ interest in the dispute with Spain over Gibraltar. Even for Mr. Cameron, preserving British identity depends on negotiation within a wider international community.

Amidst tense talks at the G20 summit, the prime minister responded to Russian characterization of Britain as a “small island” of little significance to international relations: “Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience… Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worthwhile inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world”. Such observations confirm that Mr. Cameron believes in Great Britain. What remains to be established is whether both he and Great Britain believe in the rest of the world.